Jojo Rabbit: So, are we allowed to laugh at Nazis?

Can Nazis be funny? It’s not a question you expect to ask yourself when sitting down to watch a movie by New Zealand’s biggest name in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit forces you to ask it. 

Jojo Rabbit seemed a pretty oddball project for Waititi to take on after the hits of Boy, Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but it’s part of a long lineage of stories that mock the Nazis to make a point. It took in nearly $1.2 million at the New Zealand box office over Labour Weekend. But is a movie that imagines Hitler as a kind of cuddly imaginary friend for a young German boy during World War II in good taste or bad? 

It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but critics are more mixed on it – The Chicago Sun-Times called it “irreverent, edgy, provocative envelope-pushing satire,” but the Los Angeles Times thought that “its so-called audacity smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice.” 

So, are we allowed to make Nazis funny or not? Here’s the case for and against: 

1. Hitler was kind of funny. Most dictator/authoritarian types are. Look at Kim Jong-un, with his beady stare and tossed-salad haircut, or that guy in the White House. Waititi – who’s of both Māori and Jewish descent – plays Hitler himself in Jojo Rabbit. To modern eyes, the preening, sweating moustached dictator can seem like a living cartoon character. 

Mocking the Nazis goes all the way back to when Hitler was alive and ranting, with Charlie Chaplin’s send-up in The Great Dictator back in 1940 still one of the best attacks on the führer. Mel Brooks debuted The Producers more than 50 years ago, with its whole plot revolving around a tasteless satire of the Nazis that turns into an unexpected hit. Director Billy Wilder even made a POW camp funny in Stalag-17, which in turn inspired TV’s long-running Hogan’s Heroes

The problem is that if you make Hitler too satirical, you run the risk of downplaying the very real carnage and horror committed in his name. Taika’s Hitler in Jojo Rabbit never feels truly authentic, peppering his talk with modern-day slang and gestures, but there’s a moment or two when he ramps up the ranting rage and you can see what people were afraid of. 

Because he’s an imaginary friend in a broadly romantic fantasy of a movie, Jojo’s Hitler is kind of goofily cuddly, charming and supportive of Jojo’s ambitions – as long as Jojo sticks to the Nazi party line, of course. Jojo Rabbit ultimately portrays its title character’s interest in Nazis as a boy really just wanting to belong. “You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Jojo is told at one point. 

Jerry Lewis in the legendary lost movie “The Day The Clown Cried.”

2. However, the Holocaust really isn’t funny. Jojo Rabbit skirts around the edges of the Holocaust without going too deep. The movie doesn’t stint on showing the human cost of the Nazi regime to Jewish people, but it also doesn’t take us to Auschwitz. 

There have been a few movies that have tried to find the funny in genocide. The late Jerry Lewis directed a movie in 1972 called The Day The Clown Cried about a clown entertaining children in the death camps which was so legendarily misconceived that it was never released, locked away in a vault somewhere and only seen by a few hardy souls. 

That didn’t stop others with similar stories, like Robin Williams at his most mawkish in 2002’s flop Jakob the Liar, or Roberto Benigni inexplicably winning an Oscar for best actor for 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, one of those films which just gets more cloying and baffling with time. Holocaust movies can start off with black humour, but they always have to end with tragedy. 

An entire documentary, The Last Laugh, was made a few years back about whether the Holocaust could ever be funny. In it, director/actor Rob Reiner notes, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But, survival, and what it takes to survive – there can be humour in that.” 

3. Then again, New Zealanders are pretty funny. There’s something that just works about dropping the deadpan, laconic kiwi sense of humour into unusual situations. Whether it’s Jemaine and Bret struggling in New York City in Flight of the Conchords or Taika himself as a laid-back giant rock dude in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s funny as when that chur, bro accent pops up in an unusual place. 

A lot of kiwi humour is about subtly undermining expectations, and taking a look at the world from unexpected angles. Combining that sensibility with a satire of Nazism is a gamble, and whether or not it works in Jojo Rabbit comes down a lot to personal preference. Archie Yates as Jojo’s bumbling childhood mate Yorki is that vaguely absurdist kiwi voice in Jojo Rabbit, with lines like “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

Can we make fun of the Nazis? Sure, but you’re not guaranteed that everybody will laugh at it. You can make fun of the Nazis, but for many people even doing so undercuts their very real evil. You laugh at Waititi’s intentionally broad Hitler, but you might feel a bit cringe doing so. That might just be the point. 

You don’t have to go far on the internet to find outrage boiling away these days. Satire can defuse outrage, but in a world where the far right is on the rise, it doesn’t always feel like hip internet memes are doing much to dispel their allure for some people. 

Yet the alternative to satire is either rage or silence. Satire can’t always knock down walls. But it can knock a few holes in them. Jojo Rabbit is a movie you’re meant to wrestle over. A quote by the poet Rilke appears at a pivotal moment in Jojo Rabbit, perhaps guiding us on how to navigate humour and evil – “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” 

In which I learn to pick up birds.

New Zealand’s native wood pigeon, the kererū

I like birds, especially New Zealand birds. They’re beautiful and strange and adaptable creatures.

I’m also just a little tiny bit scared of birds. Blame it on the junior high teacher who showed us Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in class. There’s something unpredictable about how birds react and all the beaks and pecking and fluttering that freaked me out a bit. I’ve reached a venerable middle age in life and yet I don’t think I’ve held a bird more than a few times. I’ve always been a little scared to. They’re not like cats or dogs (or even rats, which I had a brief flirtation with having as a pet when I was an angsty teenager). 

But I love birds more than I’m scared of ‘em, so I was pretty happy to start doing some weekly volunteering at the NZ Bird Rescue Centre last week. It’s just down the road from my house, and does amazing work rehabilitating and rehoming injured birds, including many of NZ’s native species. It’s a very cool place and I’m really happy to be doing my part there, feeding them, cleaning cages, et cetera. 

Ruru or morepork, native owl.

Of course, one of the major requirements of working in such a place is being able to pick up a bird. In the course of training there last week I went from being twitchy about the notion of picking up a bird to … well, I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near an expert, but I can do it, now. 

I started with fairly docile doves and adorable baby ducklings, learning the art of handling them. Picking up a bird requires speed, strength and gentleness all at the same time. Too hard, you have a dead bird, too soft, and you’ve got an escaped bird. Holding a baby duckling – all fluff and undulating neck, pubescent winglets fidgeting and flippers gyrating – will teach you the art of gentle firm care. 

Over the course of a few days, I moved up the ranks, to feral pigeons (smelly, noisy and bugeyed), adult ducks (surprisingly strong) and one of my personal favourites, New Zealand’s wood pigeon the kererū, which can be the size of a small cat. These are hefty, solid birds, who make a hypnotic whoosh whoosh sound as they bounce around the trees by our house looking for berries to chow down on.

Picking a kererū up requires all one’s gestational bird handling skills. Control the wings, because otherwise it’s like holding a rapidly exploding kite. Hands firm and not shaking. Control the kererū, and you control something deep within yourself. Feel the fluttering feathers, the gentle tremors of something that can fly up into the treetops, in your hands. It’s zen and the art of avian maintenance. 

There’s other birds I’m nowhere near handling yet – long-legged herons, NZ’s punk-rock chicken the pukeko, who boast massive feet that look like they’ll rip you to shreds, compact kingfishers, gorgeous yet dangerous native owls – but in my first few days at bird rescue, I picked up birds.

It’s never too late to turn over a new feather. 

Note: It’s also time for the biggest contest of the year in New Zealand to take wing, the Bird Of The Year voting. Go vote up until Nov. 10 on the bestest bird in all of NZ.

The Kinks, the Australian Outback, a memory, a dream

I’m roaring through the Australian Outback, more than 100km/h, past red dirt and yellow grass and under blue skies, and I’m listening to the Kinks. 

Every day I look at the world from my window – Waterloo Sunset, The Kink

I’d always wanted to go to the Red Centre, the wide-open Outback sung about in songs by Midnight Oil and ancient, enigmatic and empty. I went a few years back to Alice Springs, isolated and strange, and Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith hunched right at the heart of the old country. 

There was no internet, and a few CDs I’d grabbed in Sydney in my rental car for the 4-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. One of them was the Kinks’ Something Else, their fifth album, from 1967. 

Uluru stands out alone in the middle of a vast plain of red dirt, a giant unopened eye half-peering over the horizon, expanding in your car windshield from a distant hill to a  towering monolith, all the more impressive for its isolation. 

This is my street and I’m never gonna to leave it / And I’m always gonna to stay here if I live to be ninety-nine – Autumn Almanac, The Kinks

The Kinks are a band that grows on me more and more the older I get. Perhaps it’s because of all the big ‘60s bands, The Kinks are the ones who seemed middle-aged even when they were young. Oh, they were hell raisers, don’t get me wrong, but Ray Davies’ lyrics always looked inward, introspectively. They were nostalgic for a world that’s never been. Ray Davies’ world view always seemed perpetually middle-aged. 

Time is as fast as the slowest thing – Wonderboy, The Kinks

The Beatles looked back at the past either with droll mockery (“For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”) or soul-baring pathos (“Eleanor Rigby”). The Stones generally only looked back at things that involved them getting laid. The Who looked back, with anger. 

But The Kinks often looked back with rose-coloured glasses, with wistful thoughts of the way things used to be, or should’ve been. “Waterloo Sunset,” “Death of A Clown,” “Victoria,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “The Village Green Preservation Society.” 

I miss the village green, And all the simple people. – The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks

The Australian Outback humbles you. It’s vast, sprawling, primordial and raw. It’s the oldest place I’ve ever been. Hiking through 40C+ heat, desert black flies pickpecking away at all your exposed flesh, the world reduced to prime colours – red, blue, brown blending into yellow. You feel a weight. You feel history, and the weight of something that’s been around way longer than you, or anybody you’ve ever known. 

Nobody has to be any better than what they want to be – Australia, The Kinks

The Kinks felt a weight too, even if they would never articulate it precisely as that. It’s the weight of what might’ve been, what was, what could never be. Sometimes music and a place blend together in your mind, and you can’t separate the two in your memory. 

The Outback is an old, old place, older than just about anywhere else, and Ray Davies sings for me. 

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.

Happy blogiversary to me

So today marks one year since my return to blogging. It’s a “sort of anniversary,” because in another way, I’ve been blogging for about 15 years one and off since the original blog began way back in 2004, but this blog has helped revive my appetite for writing for its own sake for me. I’ve not written every day, but 67 posts in a year isn’t bad. 

I’ve written as long as I can remember, from made-up comic book empires as a kid to columns and articles and essays today. But it hasn’t always been easy. 

I’ve gotten mired in a crisis of self-confidence about my own writing for the past few years. My journalism jobs moved from involving writing to becoming more management, editing and “content curation,” more shuffling other people’s words around than attempting my own. I got away from what I got into journalism for many moons ago – telling stories, including my own. The rise of social media, web journalism and an infinite universe of hot takes and words by other people made me start to think my own voice wasn’t really important in the content blogosphere, so why bother? 

Anyway, the point is, restarting regular blogging once a week or so a year ago really helped jump-start my urge to write again. I feel better when I write something a few times a week, whatever it is. I realised that while I’m just one of a million voices on the internet, I still have something to say, and occasionally other people will read it. 

Blogging regularly again made me decide to take the leap earlier this year back into part-time freelance journalism for the first time in more than a decade, and so far I’m finding it really rewarding to do. The story of my health woes published last weekend has been shared hundreds of times on social media and dozens of people have commented and emailed sharing their own emotional stories. That’s what it’s all about, really.

This blog doesn’t get a ton of traffic compared to how my old blog did back in the golden age of bloggers circa 2008, but it’s still getting readers. It’s my little corner of the internet, and I’m pretty happy with it. Thanks for reading.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve been busy lately writing a few pieces for publication elsewhere in the media biosphere. Here’s a few:

  • This was a difficult one to write, and more personal than I typically get, but it’s an important topic. About 18 months ago I got waylaid by a shock health diagnosis and it sent me on pretty intense personal journey. Both Radio New Zealand and NZ’s biggest news website Stuff have kindly published this one:

Radio New Zealand: How I nearly died and what happened next

Stuff: How a diagnosis changed my life

It’s World Thrombosis Day on Sunday, and I wrote this to tie in to that important awareness day. There’s been some great commentary and feedback about my piece by people on these sites’ Facebook pages sharing their own stories, which really gratifies me and makes the effort of writing this one worthwhile.

  • In less dramatic writing, I also had a very fun feature printed in the New Zealand Herald‘s weekend Canvas magazine the other week about a boom in Auckland cinemas showing revivals of classic films. It’s part of their paywalled content but if you’re a Herald member it’s worth a read!

Cinema Paradiso: The classic films coming to a cinema near you

  • Lastly, this one was actually published a little while back over at Radio New Zealand but I might as well link to it as well here, because the issue of America and guns certainly hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. I wrote about it from the perspective of an American who’s lived abroad for more than a decade. I often get asked about America’s mass shootings. Wish I had an answer, but for now this is what I had to say:

Opinion: Guns create ‘a map of blood’ in US, but nothing will change

Complete succinct reviews of Stephen King, Part V

Many years ago, when the world was young and Twitter was what birds did and the idea of a President Trump was hilarious satire, on my old blog I started a deep dive through Stephen King’s formidable career, book by book. Here’s some links to the past:

Part 1: Carrie to The Stand

Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books

Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia

Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome

Now, suddenly, it’s been 10 years since I did a look at King’s oeuvre, and it seems a good time to reappraise the master.

King’s now 72, and there’s a calmer maturity the work in his autumn years I’m enjoying –  and less of the unhinged horror he bashed through in classics like Pet Sematary and It. He remains one of our most compulsively readable storytellers, and there’s a lot to love about latter-day King. 

11/22/63: One of King’s best, a stunning epic about time travel and trying to change the past. “What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated” is a well-worn topic but this one goes in directions you didn’t really expect and delivers some surprises, as well as a detailed historical epic full of emotion and regret. It’s long, but rarely feels bloated like some other King doorstops. I’m a sucker for time travel stories and King clearly is having a ball evoking the early 1960s as his traveller tries to save the world – but as usual in these cases, there’s a heavy price. Grade: A+

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through The Keyhole: Did we REALLY need another Dark Tower book after the nearly 5000 pages, seven books of the main Dark Tower saga, King’s epic fantasy which spanned entire universes? Not really, but King clearly felt the urge to return for this “Dark Tower 4 1/2” untold tale that visits Roland the gunslinger and his band on their quest. There’s stories within stories told here, and the whole thing has the feeling of a gathering of lost chapters that King couldn’t quite fit into the main Dark Tower saga. It’s engaging, even if, like me, you got a wee bit tired of the Dark Tower despite its imposing majesty by the end of the long haul. But it’s kind of like the book version of deleted scenes on a DVD, so it’s hard for it to feel essential. Grade: B

Joyland: Short but sweet, a novella about lost loves and nostalgia, which also has a few murders because it’s King, after all. Set in an amusement park in the summer of 1973, it’s full of King’s keen eye for evoking a time and place, and a summer romance that ends with bittersweet resonance. It wouldn’t go amiss side-by-side with “The Body” (aka “Stand By Me”) as one of King’s better coming-of-age stories, and surprisingly gentle compared to much of his fare. It’s one of his more unknown works, but well worth seeking out. Grade: A- 

Doctor Sleep: A sequel to The Shining is a thing I never really asked for or wanted. That said, it’s an interesting idea to follow up on Danny Torrance as an adult, suffering from deep trauma over the whole dad-possessed-by-ghosts-tried-to-kill-us-all thing. King does a nice job showing us a grounded portrayal of present-day Danny struggling to carry on; that said, the story which expands to draw in a convoluted world of secret “Shining” cults and quasi-immortals just didn’t quite work for me. Much like The Black House sequel to The Talisman decades later, looking backwards for King is a mixed bag. Grade: C+

Mr Mercedes: The first of a trilogy of novels focusing on Bill Hodges, a suicidal, retired detective and one of King’s more engaging ‘everyman’ characters. Tight and suspenseful, this one deals with the hunt for a mysterious serial killer who’s already committed one mass slaying and plans more. Hodges, the killer Brady Hartsfield and troubled young woman Holly Gibney are all some of King’s best written characters in ages, and there’s no surprise that he went on to feature them in several more books. But Mr Mercedes, with its propulsive narrative and ripped-from-the-headlines mass terror threat, is still the best. It’s also one of King’s most grounded in the real world novels and all the better for it. Grade: A

Revival: Back to pure, Lovecraftian horror for King with this one, which is a chilling riff on the Frankenstein legend. A minister loses his religion and becomes a mysterious faith healer, using electricity to heal the sick, and probing away at even darker mysteries in the universe. The novel is a beast of two sides, a more realistic look at love and loss, and a dark, fantastic glimpse into the unknown terrors of the void. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of build-up to the main event here that will either engage you or bore you, and I came down a little bit on the side of finding Revival a promising premise that never quite leaps onto the top shelf with King’s other glimpses into the abyss. Grade: B- 

Finders Keepers: Book two in the “Bill Hodges Mysteries” (which really sounds like a mid-80s Matlock spinoff), a slight comedown from the streamlined thrills of Mr Mercedes. This time, John Rothstein, a famous reclusive novelist, is murdered and his unpublished books stolen, triggering a chain of events that draws Hodges into its web. King, as always, done a fine job of evoking a writer’s life in his portrait of Rothstein, and he also shows us the duelling sides of fandom – a kid whose love for literature is awakened and a creepy fan who takes it all so far. I’m not nuts about King’s portrayal of a witty black college student which comes across as a bit crass and dated, but it’s a small critique. Grade: B+

Next time I do this, I’ll take us from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams all the way to the present day and The Institute. Stay scared! 

Sex, lies and misanthropy: The final films of Billy Wilder

It’s not easy being a legend in their autumn. Billy Wilder was easily one of the best film directors of all time, a storyteller without peer who managed to balance comedy and drama perfectly in all-time classics like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17 and many more. 

But by the time the 1970s rolled around, Billy Wilder had been making pictures for nearly 50 years. He wasn’t “hip” anymore. He made several films before his final movie, Buddy Buddy in 1981, but few of them are remembered well today. He died at 95 in 2002, but his peak was decades before. 

Wilder’s final four films aren’t quite up there with the classics that made his name, but there’s something interesting in all of them. 

1972’s Avanti! is the underrated gem of Wilder’s later period, with a terrific Jack Lemmon performance. A harried businessmen learns his father has died in Italy, and has to retrieve his body. He learns his father had been having an affair when he meets the daughter (Juliet Mills) of his late mistress. The best of Wilder’s late work tackles ageing and death head-on, and Avanti! is a solid example of that “successful men having a mid-life spiritual crisis” genre that’s been done to death over the years.  The charming, free-spirited Mills is a nice foil to Lemmon’s bitter cynicism. It’s not a perfect movie – it’s way too long at nearly 2 1/2 hours, and there’s a bit of a crime plot thread that doesn’t work, but there’s something resonant in Lemmon trying to make peace with his father’s memory and his bittersweet midlife tryst. Wilder’s ‘70s films up the swearing and nudity content, with mixed success (Buddy Buddy, below, just seems foulmouthed), but Avanti! is a mature, witty work. 

The Front Page (1974) is a team-up of Walter Matthau and Lemmon, in one of many remakes of the screwball ‘30s comedy about feuding journalists. The material’s good, but you can’t really top the perfection of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (another adaptation), and there’s something about watching a screwball comedy remade in the ‘70s that feels forced and inauthentic. While Matthau and Lemmon are always worth watching, a miscast Carol Burnett throws the whole thing off kilter and The Front Page is a trifle for Wilder that never feels essential or particularly bold. 

Fedora (1978), on the other hand, is Wilder’s last grand creative statement, and even if it’s an imperfect film, it’s not quite like anything else he did. A spiritual sequel to Sunset Boulevard, it also stars the great William Holden seeking the truth about a revered reclusive Hollywood actress, the great diva Fedora. Placed in a sun-basked European setting, much like Avanti!, it’s got an autumnal, valedictory feel. Holden was only in his late 50s at the time of filming, but seems at least 10 years older (he’d sadly die at just 63 a few years later after a fall). There’s a mystery wrapped at the heart of Fedora, which is a bit far-fetched but still proves to be a fascinating rumination on the cost of fame, ageing, and celebrity, and the cost people are willing to pay. It’s unfortunate that Fedora isn’t quite as good as it could’ve been. Some of the acting is rather suspect (the lead two actresses were dubbed, which was a bad call), and Holden, who’s always captivating, basically vanishes for much of the second half. But Fedora is a movie by a man who still had something to say, and it wouldn’t have been a half-bad last work by Wilder. As it is, it’s a rough gem. 

1981’s Buddy Buddy, unfortunately, is a bit of a stinker to go out on. Wilder was 75 when it came out, and it’s clearly the product of an old man running on empty. The traditional Wilder cynicism is there but shoehorned in an overwrought “wacky” comedy – it’s the story of a hitman (Walter Matthau) whose work keeps getting interrupted by a suicidal loser (Jack Lemmon, in full “Gil” from The Simpsons mode). There’s a few funny morbid moments – Lemmon pauses in the act of hanging himself in a bathroom to use the toilet to take a leak, for example. But the plot is all over the place, incorporating Lemmon’s battle to win back his wife (a deeply unpleasant character played by Paula Prentiss), some groan-worthy hippie satire, and topping the list in sheer weirdness, a sex clinic run by a bizarre Klaus Kinski (!) who seems to have wandered in from a different movie altogether. Lemmon’s too broad in his role and the suicide jokes seem a bit icky in 2019, but Matthau is admittedly pretty great as a cynical hitman. It’s a shame he’s not in a better movie. You’d barely recognise Wilder’s distinctive touch in it. 

The great unrealised ambition of Wilder in his later years was to direct Schindler’s List. Of course, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a great film as well, but as a Jewish man who lost much of his family in the Holocaust, including his mother, Wilder’s take could’ve been remarkable.

Then again, Billy Wilder’s entire career was a pretty remarkable thing. There’s been few storytellers who showed us more about human nature in Hollywood’s history.